Conversation 03: Little Toro Designs
Our new series features refreshing conversations with Tucson’s makers, creatives, and small business owners via long-form interviews. We aim to share their multifaceted stories, processes, and inspirations through the lens of beginnings, risk, and creativity.
Photography by Meredith Amadee
Tawney Weir / owner, designer, metalsmith jeweler, & artist
Tell us about your path to what you’re doing now; how did you start Little Toro Designs? What is your background?
My metalsmith jewelry education was cobbled together over the years by taking the metalwork class at Pima Community College three times, enrolling in classes at Tucson Parks and Recreation and through Arizona Designer Craftsmen, and metals week at Idyllwild Arts in California. I wanted to be a silversmith when I was 19 but it didn’t happen at that age. Instead, my path went the food service and then bodywork route. I don’t have a formal jewelry design and fabrication degree (my degree is in East Asian Studies), so a lot of what I’ve learned has been through trial and error—many errors! In 2013 when I was making jewelry in my kitchen’s breakfast nook, I decided to open my Etsy store, and that was the official start of my business. Since then, my business has grown locally through art and craft shows and social media promotion. My professional website launched in early 2016 and my business continues to grow incrementally every year...last year I actually made money! This year I have a business credit card, so I’m completely legit.
How has your style developed as you’ve grown?
When I started my business, my design perspective was less refined and polished than it is now. And, as I grow as a metalsmith, I’m increasingly able to express myself stylistically. My brand is based on a modern southwestern/desert aesthetic and I don’t think that will change. Branding is a critical aspect of business, so once I established a brand identity and tone it was easier to remain true to my vision and maintain a recognizable style. As my style and business develop, I’d like to find the balance between remaining recognizable as Little Toro Designs and staying delightful and surprising.
“As my style and business develop, I’d like to find the balance between remaining recognizable as Little Toro Designs and staying delightful and surprising.”
When did the idea of starting your business feel like something you could achieve? Was there an “aha!” moment?
I think discovering social media (Instagram in particular) was an “aha!” moment for me. I was a late adopter, having opened an Instagram account in 2014. When I saw what other businesses were doing on that platform—connecting with fellow creatives/makers and potential customers, and actually making sales through Instagram—I knew social media promotion had to become a priority. And it’s begun to work for me in a positive and trackable way; it makes me feel like I can also achieve success.
If you weren’t running Little Toro Designs, what would you be doing?
Perhaps I would pursue art or fashion photography. I really enjoy taking photos, and since Instagram is image-driven, maybe that’s why I love it so much. I now have both business and personal accounts, as I needed a place to post my surplus photos! Using original photos is important to me. Of course I repost the occasional photo, but I don’t want someone else’s imagery filling my gallery. The desert inspiration photos are mine, not pulled from Pinterest or another Instagram account. I want my gallery to be a thoughtful representation of me as an artist, and that includes posting mostly original content. Over the past couple of years, I’ve invested in a number of online classes on maximizing Instagram for business, with info on topics like product flat-lays and photography consistency for branding purposes. But I’ve never taken a formal photography class. iPhones and apps have made photography accessible to the inexperienced, right? I just bought a real camera and I’m excited to take my product photos to the next level.
Does your process come pretty naturally or do you find yourself fighting against creative block at times?
I don’t really have creative block; I have a procrastination problem that stems from perfectionism—which isn’t a terrible thing when it comes to making jewelry! You need to be meticulous. But I often have to tell myself to stop agonizing over a piece and move on. I often have so many ideas that I don’t know where to begin sometimes, so then I don’t do anything. It’s a constant battle. Truthfully, I often find it a challenge to engage in social and other media constructively, in a way that doesn’t become a time suck or a distraction. It’s been a struggle to establish work routines and manage time efficiently. And in spite of my best intentions, some days I just end up on the couch watching TV. At least I can post to Instagram from there and pretend I’m doing something constructive!
Have you taken big risks to move forward? Do you see a connection between risk and creativity?
I’ve taken financial risks in my business, and have invested an enormous amount of money in tools, equipment, and materials. If only you had any idea how much a quality hammer costs! I did drop from full-time to part-time at my job about a year ago, and will probably drop another day this year. I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I can quit and really concentrate on my jewelry business, but that day is hopefully coming soon. I think when that happens, my business is going to explode because it will have my full and undivided attention.
“I don’t really have creative block; I have a procrastination problem that stems from perfectionism—which isn’t a terrible thing when it comes to making jewelry! You need to be meticulous.”
Have you had any memorable collaborations? Why do you think it’s important for creatives and makers to come together and collaborate?
Custom orders are always encouraged. I enjoy working with people collaboratively to realize their personal vision. Last year, I spent several months designing and fabricating four bridesmaid and groomsmen pieces. It was a real honor to be chosen for such a project.
Also, a couple of mutually beneficial collaborative possibilities are in the works—maybe even an exclusive design offered by Tucson-based shop Fine Life Co, one of my newest stockists. That opportunity thrilled me (thanks Emily!), as connections with like-minded creative people are critical to success. I look forward to pursuing more collaborations of this type as time allows. Cross-promotion and shout-outs make you more visible to possible customers and are invaluable for that reason. The fact is, on the spectrum of business success, there are always those who have achieved more. It’s important to remain humble and open to accepting advice, assistance, or support from these folks when offered. I hope I can do the same for others.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out?
Learn as much as you can about the mechanics of running a business. In the beginning, I knew virtually nothing, which is probably not unusual. I had to educate myself on basics like paying business taxes and using accounting software, which is still a mystery! Academy of Handmade, Indie Retail Academy, and The Merriweather Council are good online resources for starting and sustaining a handmade business, with free information and classes on wholesale sales, email lists, line sheet creation, and more.
Also, embrace social media as a means to make sales. Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest: do it all or pick one and do it well. Improving photography skills is a must, and luckily there’s a ton of helpful information on the web about editing, apps, props, and more. Craftsposure has courses for maximizing Instagram for sales, with topics like improving content and building a following. I’ve spent countless hours on the platform researching hashtags and interacting with other accounts. All of this work is time consuming, but it’s part of running an effective business. I would advise new business owners to dedicate time everyday to some aspect of social media.
“It’s important to remain humble and open to accepting advice, assistance, or support from these folks when offered. I hope I can do the same for others.”
Outline the 3 greatest attributes you need to be a maker / creative / small business owner:
01. Vision. Envision that indiepreneur future: planning for both short-term and long-term goals is good and necessary.
02. Time. Use your time wisely; there are only so many hours in the day.
03. Effort. Work, work, work: nothing is going to happen on its own. The yoga mantra, “Practice, and all is coming,” could apply here.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger? What type of legacy do you hope to leave?
If an opportunity arises to contribute to something bigger, I may take it. I strive to be supportive of others’ creative endeavors and put positive vibes into the universe, but I don’t have any grand goals. I want simplicity in my life, and I want to make a living doing something I love.
“I want simplicity in my life, and I want to make a living doing something I love.”
What brought you to Tucson? How does living in Tucson influence your craft?
I’m originally from Tucson, fourth generation. My great grandfather was a Pima County sheriff, and he and my grandfather were local ranchers, so I feel like a child of the desert. But I spent a good deal of my childhood in the Midwest, so I get that part of the country too. I moved back here in 1989 with the intention of moving on and I never did. I love this dusty brown town and the southwest in general. I crave sunlight and don’t do well in the cold. Plus, the Sonoran Desert is absurdly beautiful. Living here absolutely influences my modern desert style perspective. I’m inspired by the trifecta of cultures that dwell here: Mexican, Native American, and cowboy. My goal is to reinterpret traditional southwestern motifs in a modern way.
How do you stay creatively inspired?
I exercise when I need a break. A walk along the Rillito River, a hike in Sabino Canyon, or a trek up Tumamoc Hill at sunset always does it for me. The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun and Tucson Botanical Gardens are wonderful places I find regenerative. Pinterest is great for quick visual stimulation, particularly Native American design and craft, folk art, and vintage jewelry designs. I have a special interest in the Modernist movement. If I have time I sometimes take a Craftsy online class to learn a new way to employ my skills.
And you need to go no further than Instagram for inspiration. I follow many makers—ceramicists, painters, photographers, jewelers, clothing designers—and I’m constantly impressed by what these talented people are creating. For me, it’s important to be aware of trends, but to reinterpret them. I want to capitalize on current trends in an original and different way: that’s the tricky part I suppose! Also, finding the right balance between artistic vision and affordability and practicality is a struggle sometimes.
“I feel like a child of the desert...Living here absolutely influences my modern desert style perspective. I’m inspired by the trifecta of cultures that dwell here: Mexican, Native American, and cowboy. My goal is to reinterpret traditional southwestern motifs in a modern way.”
“For me, it’s important to be aware of trends, but to reinterpret them. I want to capitalize on current trends in an original and different way: that’s the tricky part I suppose!”
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m an early riser; I rarely sleep later than 7 am. I walk the dog first, then it’s time for coffee. Depending on what day it is, I go to work at a resort where I do bodywork and facials four days a week, or I do business administrative and social media work. I go to the Jewish Community Center to work out at some point and spend time in my home studio, either designing, photographing, or fabricating. Sometimes there is no time to actually make anything: just photographing and writing copy for a listing is time consuming. I also do a lot of research and I take online classes to improve my craft and business. There is seriously not enough time in the day.
What are you trying to learn right now?
I’m learning how to carve wax from a goldsmith here in Tucson. Hand-fabrication is tedious and, in many cases, not the best way for creating multiples. Since my business is growing, I would like the option to have select designs cast for easier and faster production. Plus, it opens up a whole world of creative possibility. In metalsmithing there are many technique choices for achieving a design outcome, and casting is one. Learning to carve wax is the first step and very different from working with metal; wax is very soft but more forgiving than metal in a way. It can be sculptural, freeform, and three dimensional. So right now I’m purchasing tools to set up my own wax carving station in my studio and I’m eager to start experimenting with this intriguing technique.
Seeing where you are now, what are your ambitions for the coming years?
I want to become a full time jeweler and metal artist and be financially successful doing it. To that end, I will be pursuing wholesaling opportunities primarily in the southwest and west coast. It would be amazing to vend at West Coast Craft in San Francisco—the preeminent show in my opinion—and that would open doors for me. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m feeling lucky.